CBS Films needs a big makeover after its J.Lo 'Back-Up Plan' stumbles at the box office
CBS Films is now officially a troubled movie company. It's bad enough that its name is awful, its marketing is inept and its first two releases--"Extraordinary Measures" and this past weekend's Jennifer Lopez-starring "The Back-Up Plan"--have both been box-office duds (with withering reviews to boot), but it's become clear that what is really killing CBS Films is its business plan.
It's still unclear to me why CBS mogul Les Moonves, one of the brightest executives in the television universe, was so hellbent on having a film studio. Maybe he needed a new world to conquer. At CBS, the irrepressible Moonves has been a shrewd programmer and judge of talent, keeping CBS at or near the top of the ratings game for years. But film is a very different business, and one that involves a steep learning curve, even for a savvy executive like Moonves. And judging from its initial releases (and the films already in production), the film company Moonves has created feels more like a used car than a sleek new Mercedes, especially in today's post-"Avatar" landscape, where there are suddenly two kinds of movies: mammoth 3-D action-adventure tentpoles ... and everybody else.
Of course, when Moonves launched the company in 2007, having wooed Amy Baer away from Sony Pictures and installed her as the film division chief, it was a very different world. Moonves had a simple business plan, which he explained to me over drinks late last year. (Neither Moonves nor Baer would comment for this story.) The company would make modestly budgeted pictures with recognizable name actors, keeping budgets in the $30 million to $50 million range. ("The Back-Up Plan" cost $35 million.) Even though everyone else in Hollywood was running away from the midrange movie, saying it was a no man's land, Moonves believed that it was a niche CBS Films could exploit as long as it provided moviegoers with likable stars and quality material.
Moonves didn't want to play with the big boys. Trying to compete with the studios by making big $150-million movies was a risk he didn't want to take. But he didn't want to make $5-million art-house pictures either. He felt comfortable in the middle ground, believing that if the company was disciplined about its budgets, even if it released a stinker, it couldn't lose its shirt.
As it turns out, this was a flawed assumption. With low risk comes low rewards. If you study the new film companies that have had success in the past couple of decades, they are companies that made the movies they needed to make to compete, regardless of the cost. At a smaller company, where you have to be resourceful to survive, budget flexibility trumps budget discipline. As one studio executive put it: "The whole idea is to keep the casino open until someone deals you a royal flush."
Miramax survived until it stumbled into "Pulp Fiction" and the "Scary Movie" franchise; New Line hung in there until it hit the jackpot with "Lord of the Rings"; Summit stumbled along until it lucked into the "Twilight" franchise after Paramount let it slip away. When you're a young company without a film library that throws off a ton of cash, you have to take risks to survive. CBS Films saved money by casting an unknown actor opposite Lopez, but if the company had spent an extra $5 million to get Paul Rudd, it might've pulled some guys like me into the theater and broadened the film's appeal.
What CBS Films has essentially done is limit its upside by releasing nice little movies. But nice doesn't cut it, not in today's unbelievably competitive marketplace, where even a better version of a movie like "The Back-Up Plan" has little chance of making a big splash. The company has also been hurt by its lack of marketing prowess. Millions of potential moviegoers (myself included) got our first look at "The Back-Up Plan" during the Super Bowl telecast, when CBS Films aired a bizarre teaser spot that focused on a pregnant woman, her face contorted in agony, surrounded by wide-eyed women with drums that looked like more like a wacky Taos sweat lodge ritual than a Lamaze class.
You knew right then that every red-blooded guy in front of a TV set was quietly thinking: "Boy, I sure hope my wife (or girlfriend) doesn't ever ask me to see that film." The film's later trailer and TV spots weren't much better, not to mention the strange ad that ran in our newspaper over the weekend, which showed Lopez and her love interest, Alex O'Loughlin, making eyes at each other while Lopez's French bulldog stood at her feet, strapped into some medieval-looking contraption with training wheels. (It turns out that's a doggie wheelchair, although you'd have to see the movie first to know it.)
And then there's the issue of the name CBS Films itself, which is clearly a millstone around the company's neck. If you have a name that is synonymous with the best-known network in TV, and then you make movies that, because of their modest budgets, look like they belong on CBS or the Lifetime Network, you're sending a dangerously mixed message to moviegoers, who often assume that the ads they see are for a TV movie. Using the network's name has also made the movie reviews even worse, since it only encourages critics--as they often have--to describe the films as being like a bad sitcom or a made-for-TV movie.
I'd bet that if "The Back-Up Plan" hadn't been released with the CBS Films logo, Variety critic Brian Lowry wouldn't have described the film as a tepid romantic comedy that falls "somewhere between a weak sitcom pilot and a second-tier Hallmark movie," much less gone on to note that O'Loughlin is an Australian actor who had already been cast--ouch!--in two canceled CBS dramas. As it turns out, the film's screenwriter, Kate Angelo, is also a veteran sitcom writer.
It isn't fair to beat up CBS Films for hiring TV people, since tons of great talent, from James Brooks to J.J. Abrams, have come out of television. But if your film division is using the network's name, then it actually has to go more out of its way than the average studio to avoid using TV talent if it wants to avoid being tagged as a TV-centric company.
So where does CBS Films go from here? I think Moonves has to recognize that if he hopes to play in today's movie game, he's going to have to open up his wallet and take more risks. Right now, the film company's model seems to be Elizabeth Gabler's Fox 2000, which has had huge success making modestly budgeted films like "Marley and Me" and "The Devil Wears Prada." But it's hard to imagine that there's room in the middle for more than one company. Fox 2000 is also a division of a bigger film conglomerate, so Gabler's projects are sold by Big Fox marketing wizard Tony Sella, who, having successfully sold a stream of cruddy films from Big Fox, is the best in the business at finding a crowd-pleasing hook that can give a smaller film a bigger audience.
CBS Films also has to avoid making any more "nice" little movies. A big studio can afford to do one of those films to spice up its release slate, but a new company has to make films that grab audiences by the throat, not tickle their fancy. It's why the most successful newer companies, be it New Line, Dimension, Lionsgate or Screen Gems, all thrived by making low-budget, youth-oriented genre films. Slasher films, outrageous comedies and razor-edged thrillers may not get much respect at Oscar time, but genre films have a very specific audience that can be reached with relatively inexpensive targeted advertising.
Better still, it's a boisterous young audience that still feels the need to go to the movies. Moonves knows who they are--they're all the young males who are so hard to reach with a TV show. But they are the most reliable audience in moviedom. So I guess I'm saying that what CBS Films needs right now is an injection of irreverent, unruly, manic energy. It's the kind of brash energy that has fueled nearly every start-up company in the business for years. If CBS Films wants to play the movie game, it's going to have to find a way to play to win.
Photo: Jennifer Lopez at the premiere of "The Back-Up Plan" at the Village Theatre in Westwood. Credit: Jason Merritt / Getty Images